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IN a recent post, “Rank and Yank,” I argued that we philosophers have not lived up to our reputation as critical thinkers with regard to rankings. We have not engaged in any sustained or comprehensive debate about their virtues and vices. Instead we have allowed rankings to take on a life of their own. In a second post, “Thinking Outside of the Box,” I suggested an alternative to rankings that would be more helpful for prospective graduate students, without the biases that are built into a ranking system. Here I would like to consider the consequences of rankings for those entering the job market.

Supporters of rankings often claim that they provided a real service by supplanting an old boys hiring network.   Whether they actually helped in this regard, I do not know. But they have undoubtedly created an alternative type of old boys network, more insidious in certain ways than the last, because this one claims to be based on meritocratic and objective principles, when in fact it diminishes opportunity for individuals and does not promote merit for the profession as a whole. There is a rather simple thought experiment that can prove my point. Or if it doesn’t prove my point, it should at least give pause to any fair-minded individual in his or her support for rankings.

There is little doubt that a halo effect exists with regard to academic institutions. Tell someone that you received your undergraduate or graduate degree from an Ivy League school and you will be looked at differently than someone who graduated from Public U. This is ancient history, both inside and outside of academia, but appears to be more pervasive of late as our culture becomes ever more status conscious, which is no doubt related to deepening economic class stratification.   Associate yourself with a certain brand, Apple or Harvard, and you’ve got a better shot at winning the prestige game. Although we might hope that it would be different in Philosophy, it’s difficult to deny that rankings play into this prestige and halo culture.

Here I offer a personal anecdote, one that I believe reflects very deep biases in the profession, nay prejudices. These unfairly mark individuals in certain ways, especially in the academic job market in Philosophy.

More than two decades ago I was at a conference with philosophers trained in various traditions. One very eminent analytic philosopher—someone known the world over—and I hit it off. We had lunch, then dinner, and then lunch together. We talked a lot about philosophy, as well as other matters. Well into our second day of conversation my new friend asked where I had gone to graduate school. I said, Boston College. And without skipping a beat, or reflecting on what he was about to say, my new friend looked at me, somewhat in shock, and said, “Oh, you’re much too smart to have gone there.”

I tell this story because it reflects wide-spread assumptions in our profession about people who attend schools with which others may be unfamiliar, or those that are not part of a sanctified list of schools based on rankings.   In the situation I described there was no harm done because, well, I was employed, and my new friend was not sitting on a hiring committee. But if those less candid than he, but sharing some of the same institutional prejudices, were on such a committee, I would not have gotten past the first round in the application process. This would not have been right. I would not have been judged on my competence, but on my lack of a halo (or my anti-halo).

And now my challenge.

In spite of the fact that some of us may believe that rankings do not effect our ability to judge job candidates, that we can remain objective in spite of biases about institutions, I simply do not believe this to be the case. Here is a simple thought experiment to support my point. I believe that anyone who honestly reflects on it, and takes it seriously, will agree that we have a problem, a serious one in terms of basic fairness to job candidates.

The next time you do a job search break your committee into two groups. Have one group evaluate the candidates without reference to the institution from which they graduated and have the other evaluate the candidates with all of the institutional information included. I can almost guarantee that the short lists will not be the same. And I believe that anyone who is honest with him or herself about how this process works will agree. If you think I’m wrong, try it. Or at least try it as a thought experiment.

Oh, but you will say, we can never get rid of institutional biases. X and Y universities will always have a special cachet, just because they are X and Y. No doubt! But this isn’t the question. The question is whether we as philosophers are not only aware of institutional biases, but whether we are comfortable actively promoting them, entrenching them, lending our good name to furthering them. We should be doing everything in our power to level the playing field when it comes to hiring in Philosophy. And this means diminishing as much as possible the halo effect, not supporting a system that creates halos and then—all too often—trumpets them to the world.

6 thoughts

  1. Divide the search committee into two groups and give them exactly the same information. I bet they will still not come up with the same short list. There will be overlap but also quite a bit of difference. But if that is the case I don’t think your experiment will show much on its own.

    1. Michael,

      Thanks for your comment. Of course you are correct. Any two groups of people will not necessarily come up with the same lists. However, the point of the thought experiment is to get people thinking about how much a specific kind of bias has on the evaluation of candidates. I would still argue that in this regard it’s a worthy experiment. I do believe that the results would be affected by the halo effect. And this could actually be demonstrated. See how many more short listed candidates there are from top ranked schools in the pile that was reviewed with institutional affiliations. And repeat, and then repeat, etc., with new pools. Again, I bet a pattern will emerge showing a halo effect.

  2. There are good reasons to assume that pedigree is not purely a matter of merit (i.e., it’s not just the best students who get in top programs). Rather, it’s people from upper- or middle-class backgrounds, whose parents are also well-versed in the prestige culture, who are typically white, and who are not disabled or have no commitments tying them down to a particular place. I wrote a blogpost a while ago, arguing that an emphasis on rank is classist and racist, referring to the testimony of Tommie Shelby who almost didn’t get into an undergraduate program because he missed most deadlines
    There is a correlation between the prestige (or lack thereof) of one’s undergraduate degree and one’s graduate program, as Eric Schwitzgebel observes. Eric observes that just 19% of students attending top 10 Leiter-ranked schools come from “non-elite” universities. So what were are selecting are people who are conscious of rank.
    Shelley Tremain mentioned moreover that there are extra hurdles for disabled students, who might not be able to apply to far-flung universities where the same accommodations aren’t automatically available.

    1. Amanda, my understanding is that there are people working on pieces of it, for example, placement records, but no one is working on creating a whole web site/platform. My concern is that as long as the PGR dominates the scene, it is going to be difficult to get a comprehensive alternative off the ground. (No one has done it so far and the idea has been around, although the technology is changing.) One way it could happen: if a foundation (or philanthropist) were willing to back it and a small staff was put together to create the site and help correlate the information, as well as research some of it. What do you think given your background?

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